MILLBURY, Mass. - Michele Decoteau is a wife, mother and author, and for the past four years she's been a beekeeper here in Millbury. She has three hives named after her queens, Magenta, Sun and True, although True recently died, so Decoteau is letting that hive die out this winter and repopulate it with a new queen next spring.
Millbury has plenty of beekeepers, but most of them are fairly new at it, with less than five years experience.
Decoteau provides a fascinating inside look at beekeeping and honey production with her Italian honey bees through her blog, Blue Hive Journals.
"They are among the most popular and docile," she said of her honey bees.
While local beekeepers don't have regularly scheduled meetings, they are mutually supportive of each other. They email each other with questions, problems or requests for help. A prime example was the recent spraying for mosquitoes which immediately went out on their own internal network.
The spray for mosquitoes is harmful to bees, so beekeepers such as Decoteau need to act quickly.
"We cover them (the hives) and then staple screens across the openings to the hives so that the bees can't go in or out," she said. "The spraying in Millbury is typically done around nine at night, so we cover the hives around dark and keep them covered and screened until about noon the next day, when its safe for them to go out."
Decoteau went to the Worcester County Beekeepers Association School, she said, a seven-week course where they cover all of the basics.
"They teach you just about everything you need to know," she said. "All of it is in their book, but sometimes bees don't pay attention or read the book."
She said the purpose of the course is to give you a background because each person will experience their own set of issues to deal with.
Beekeepers, she said, can buy bees complete with a hive or by the pound. Bees are sold in 5 lb. increments, and, according to Decoteau, that is the preferred method of setting up an initial hive.
Her large hive was a "package" that she won from the Worcester County Beekeepers Association. "We won everything, the hive, the bees the woodenware, the whole nine yards," she said.
Is beekeeping something she really wanted to do all her life?
"No, its actually a very interesting story. My husband always wanted to be a farmer, or a gentleman farmer as he puts it," she said. "He would like to keep his day job but do farming on the side. About five years ago we had the opportunity to bid on a property (elsewhere). It wasn't too big, not too small and the price range was in our realm, but the Farm Service was going to take bids on it.
"But they were going to make their decision on your business plan and farming credentials," she added. "We looked at each other and said...what farming credentials?"
So Decoteau went to Worcester, took the beekeeping course and now the family has a farming credential.
And it definitely is a family affair. Both she and her daughter are out there daily, as is the family dog. Her husband helps out as much as he can with a busy work schedule. But her son, she says, isn't interested in beekeeping.
In the winter, caring for bees doesn't change much as the hives stay outside. Decoteau just puts some haybales around them to block the wind, along with some bubble wrap around three sides to allow ventilation but still keep the hive warm.
"With bees, it's not so much the cold, but if they get wet and cold then they will freeze," she said. Decoteau explained that bees cluster in the winter, surrounding the queen, keeping her warm. They rotate inside and outside; bees that are cold will rotate inside and warmer ones outside to keep the mutual survival of all on-going.
This is the time of year that drone bees are evicted from the hive as they have no position with keeping the queen warm. Once the queen begins laying eggs in January, the cluster which had been keeping the inside tempature at around 62 degrees will cluster tighter and the hive's tempature will then rise to near 93. That's when they consume the honey that they generate, keeping the hive warm. Around mid-March, the queen will start serious reproduction.
Decoteau says the bees forage in anywhere from a two- to four-mile range before returning to the hive. But she said that since foraging is so plentiful in the area, the bees probably don't venture as far.
One of the more interesting aspects of beekeeping is that the state regulates and inspects beekeepers. Decoteau just recently had hers inspected, at her request. She says its important because the the inspector will keep the beekeepers aware of potential problem areas and issues of which may newer keepers may not be aware.
Decoteau suited up for a close up look at the hive and the honey-making that most people don't ever get to see.
Bee suits are white, she says, because bees tend to equate dark colors with bears, their honey-stealing enemy. Bees will carry nectar from flowers which is about 20 percent sugar, 80 percent water to the hive and convert it in the hive by regurgitating the nectar to a worker bee.
The worker bees fill up the cells of the hive and evaporate the water from the honey by flapping their wings over the cell until the water percentage is down to only 15-18 percent when only the honey remains.
She carries a smoker because bees communicate through pheromones and the smoke interrupts those.
"If one bee becomes agitated or alarmed, the smoke will interrupt the pheromone and it won't allow the other bees to become agitated and also, the smoke will actually encourage the bees to eat," she said.
"They equate the smoke with the hive being on fire and they eat the honey to save some of their food," she said.
Once they've eaten, just like people, they automatically become more docile, she explained.
Decoteau will host a honey-tasting event at the Millbury Public Library on Tuesday, Oct. 25 and she will be putting up some different kinds of honey, varietal honeys she says, because the honey will be pollenated from a single pla.
"One might be a cranberry honey, not because it was cranberry flavored but because it was made from a cranberry plant," she said. Bees will exhaust a plant before moving on to another, she said.